Wednesday, October 1, 2014

EEOC and Employer D(r)eadlocked Over Religious Discrimination Claim

Can an employer lawfully refuse to hire an applicant who won’t trim his hair due to religious beliefs?  That’s the central issue in a new lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of an applicant who allegedly was denied work by a Raleigh, North Carolina-based employer.

The applicant, who hasn’t cut his hair since 2009, claims he was told that he could not get a delivery driver position unless he cut his dreadlocks.  He allegedly explained that haircuts were forbidden by his Rastafarian religion, but the employer still refused to hire him.  The EEOC claims that the employer violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it failed to accommodate the applicant’s religious beliefs.

According to some sources, the reluctance by Rastafarians to cut their hair can be traced to a Bible passage that says, “They shall not make baldness upon their head.”  (Leviticus 21:5, KJV)

This new lawsuit is just the latest skirmish in an ongoing campaign against grooming standards by the EEOC.  Earlier this year, a federal court in Alabama dismissed a racial bias lawsuit brought on behalf of a woman whose employment offer was withdrawn when she refused to cut her dreadlocks.  The court in that case ruled that Title VII only prohibits discrimination based on unchangeable characteristics, such as race, gender, and the like.  Hair styles, even those based on African-American cultural norms, are not unchangeable characteristics.  The judge pointed out a number of cases upholding the lawfulness of corporate grooming standards.

The new lawsuit in North Carolina differs from the one in Alabama in that it is based on religious discrimination, rather than racial bias.  Recently, the EEOC issued a fact sheet (here) entitled “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.”  In it, the agency contends that most employers subject to Title VII “must make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religious dress and grooming practices.”

Of course, contrary to what some may believe, businesses are not completely without rights.  An employer may lawfully bar an individual's religious dress or grooming practice for reasons of workplace safety, security, health concerns, or undue hardship.  One size does not fit all, however, and employers should make a case-by-case determination of any requested religious exceptions.  Just as importantly, they ensure that supervisors and managers are trained on how to appropriately respond to such requests.

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